Recent College Graduates in the U.S. Labor Force: Data from the Current Population Survey

By Spreen, Thomas Luke | Monthly Labor Review, February 2013 | Go to article overview

Recent College Graduates in the U.S. Labor Force: Data from the Current Population Survey


Spreen, Thomas Luke, Monthly Labor Review


Data collected each October in the School Enrollment Supplement to the Current Population Survey provide an annual snapshot of the demographic characteristics, labor force activity, and school enrollment status of each year's cohort of recent college graduates

Every year, thousands of recent graduates of colleges and universities across the United States enter the labor force with newly minted degrees and high hopes about their employment prospects. (1) In October 2011, 74.5 percent of the 1.3 million 2011 recent college graduates were employed, according to data from the Current Population Survey (CPS). The unemployment rate for the 2011 cohort of recent college graduates was 12.6 percent. CPS data also show variation in the labor force status of bachelor's and advanced degree recipients.

This article is the first from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to publish labor force data specifically for recent college graduates. The estimates presented in this article were generated from data collected in the October School Enrollment Supplement to the CPS. The analysis that follows describes the demographic characteristics, labor force activity, and school enrollment status of the 2011 cohort of recent college graduates. Additional labor force data are also presented for the 2007 to 2010 cohorts of recent college graduates.

About the data

The CPS is a nationally representative sample survey of 60,000 households providing information about employment and unemployment in the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau conducts the CPS each month for the BLS. The CPS provides labor force data by a variety of demographic characteristics, including educational attainment. Since January 1992, educational attainment has been measured in the CPS by highest degree attained.

To collect additional data on the school enrollment of children 3 to 14 years old and adults 15 years and older, the BLS, U.S. Census Bureau, and National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) jointly sponsor the CPS School Enrollment Supplement, which is administered annually in October. A question was added beginning with the October 1993 supplement to determine the calendar year that respondents received their most recent postsecondary degree. This question was restricted to respondents ages 15 to 29 who stated in the monthly survey that they had an associate's, bachelor's, master's, professional, or doctoral degree. (2) The question has two response options: in the current year or a prior year. For the purpose of this article, respondents who report they received their degree in the current calendar year are considered recent college graduates. (For more information about how recent college graduate status is determined, see the section entitled "Supplement question identifying recent college graduates" in the appendix, p. 12.) This question can be used with the monthly CPS demographic and labor force questions to identify labor force outcomes and school enrollment status of college graduates within a year of completion of their degree.

The approximate measure of recent college graduates currently available from the CPS is 16-to-24-year-olds with at least a bachelor's degree who are not enrolled in school. These data have the advantage of timely publication each month concurrent with "The Employment Situation" news release. (3) However, with no question to identify the precise date of completion, these estimates include persons who completed their degree more than a year prior to the survey. Furthermore, since these estimates are restricted to 16-to-24-year-olds, they systematically exclude older graduates. Data from the NCES-sponsored Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study show that nearly one-fifth of bachelor's degree recipients finish their degrees between the ages of 24 and 29 years. (4)

As previously noted, the question used to identify recent college graduates in the CPS School Enrollment Supplement is restricted to persons ages 15 to 29. …

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